CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Unlike most art exhibition receptions, the one kicking off the spring semester at Figure One – the University of Illinois’ art exhibition space in downtown Champaign – won’t involve wine and little cheese cubes speared on colorful toothpicks. Instead, patrons will nosh on milk and cookies, then skip over a bridge and watch TV in a fort.
The exhibition comprises a single installation by Samantha Persons, a first-year graduate student in the School of Art and Design, a unit in the U. of I. College of Fine and Applied Arts. Her large-scale work begins in Figure One’s narrow midsection, where Persons has constructed a railed bridge, just wide enough for patrons to walk across one-by-one. The crossing leads to a colorful off-kilter house with a lollipop above its entryway, lightly shuttered by a pair of sheets. Inside, the house is all bed linens and pillows, the kind of items a child would pilfer to construct a play fort. A projector embedded in one wall beams “Peter Pan” – the 1950s Mary Martin version – onto the ceiling’s mirrored panels. Patrons can plop down on the pallets and watch as the images are reflected back down onto their own bodies.
The installation can be viewed as wholesome, colorful, G-rated fun, but Persons’ work carries a deeper message. The canted house, painted Poetic Princess pink, represents an attempt to conform to the adult world, while the billowy blanketed interior represents a childhood fantasy. “Peter Pan” – one of Persons’ favorites among her mother’s vast collection of Disney productions – stars a woman portraying a boy.
“When you’re young and trying to find what makes sense, especially understanding yourself in context with the rest of society, having Mary Martin play Peter Pan is a pretty big deal,” Persons said. “She’s playing a boy, and nobody shunned her. So you can be a tomboy, and culturally everybody embraced this.”
The mirrored ceiling shoots these images onto anyone inside the fort, bathing everyone inside with images of the cast of “Peter Pan.”
“The mother and father, who are in traditional gender roles, and Mary Martin, playing a boy, and Captain Hook, who is flamboyantly gay – you’re taking on all those roles,” Persons said. The title of the installation is “Embodied Structures.”
A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, Persons, 29, describes herself as “genderqueer” – someone whose identity falls somewhere on the spectrum between the heteronormative poles of male and female – and uses her art to explore the complexities of identity. “A lot of my work has been dealing with gender issues, gender theory, queer theory, feminist theory,” she said. “I live it, navigating the world every day.”
Persons’ show is the second in a series of student exhibitions called “n to Watch,” formerly known as “10 to Watch.” The series has traditionally featured student artists in the College of Fine and Applied Arts, selected by a jury. Figure One coordinator Jimmy Luu changed the title to allow flexibility in the number of students. This semester, he said, n equals six.
Persons’ sculpture is in Figure One, 116 N. Walnut Street, Champaign, now through Jan. 27 (Friday). A reception will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday (Jan. 20). The space is open noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5 to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.